The Writer’s Almanac for July 24, 2018

“Amazing Grace” by John Newton. Public Domain. (buy now)

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace those fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.


It’s the birthday of English poet and novelist Robert Graves (books by this author), born in Wimbledon in 1895. He was one of 10 children; his father, Alfred Perceval Graves, was a Celtic scholar and his mother, Amalie, was related to noted historian Leopold von Ranke. He began writing poetry as a schoolboy, and wrote three books of verse while serving as an officer on the Western Front during World War I. He was badly wounded in 1916 and again in 1918, and he battled the physical and psychological effects of the Great War for several years to come. Good-Bye to All That (1929) is his grim memoir of the war years, and it sold well enough that he was able to settle on the island of Majorca with his lover, American poet Laura Riding.

He wrote more than 120 books, including historical fiction like I, Claudius (1934), about the Roman Empire; and The Golden Fleece (1944), about Hercules. His research of mythology for The Golden Fleece led him to write a controversial book, The White Goddess; A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948). In it, he argues for throwing off the old patriarchal gods and relying on a divine female deity for inspiration. He believed the White Goddess inspired poetry that was magical, rather than the rational, classical verse that arose from meditating on a male god.

He wrote in his essay “A Case for Xanthippe” (1960): “Though philosophers like to define poetry as irrational fancy, for us it is practical, humorous, reasonable way of being ourselves. Of never acquiescing in a fraud; of never accepting the secondary-rate in poetry, painting, music, love, friends. Of safeguarding our poetic institutions against the encroachments of mechanized, insensate, inhumane, abstract rationality.”


Today is the birthday of American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897), born in Atchison, Kansas. She was a tomboy as a child, and she didn’t like being told what she couldn’t do because of her gender. She kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about women who had made a go of it in male-dominated fields. She saw her first airplane at a county fair when she was 10. “It was a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting,” she said. But 10 years later, she went to a stunt-flying exhibition, and when the pilot dove toward the crowd attempting to scare them, Amelia stood her ground. “I did not understand it at the time,” she said, “but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”

When she grew up, she served as a nurse’s aide during World War I, then went to college, and began working as a social worker. She had her first flying lesson in 1921, began saving her money, and bought her own plane six months later. She was dubbed “Lady Lindy,” after Charles Lindbergh, and was a popular lecturer. She was featured in ads for Modernaire luggage and Lucky Strike cigarettes. She also inspired a new subset of women’s fashions: “active wear.” She amassed a long résumé of firsts in her career: first woman pilot to fly at 14,000 feet; first woman to fly (as passenger) across the Atlantic; first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic; first pilot to fly solo across the Pacific; first pilot to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark; first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross. In her quest to be the first person to fly around the world, she disappeared over the Pacific, somewhere near the International Date Line.


It’s the birthday of writer and socialite Zelda Fitzgerald (books by this author), born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama (1900). She was named after the fictional gypsy heroine in Zelda’s Fortune (1874), one of her mother’s favorite books. She was the youngest of five children, and she rebelled against the strict discipline of her father, an Alabama Supreme Court judge. She snuck out of her window at night, smoked cigarettes, bobbed her hair, and wore a flesh-colored swimsuit so that people would think she was swimming nude. She spent her evenings at dances and parties with the officers stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan, and they competed for her attention. One officer performed the full manual of arms drill outside her door, and others took turns trying to outdo each other with fancy airplane stunts in the sky above the Sayre household.

It was at Camp Sheridan that Zelda met a young officer named Scott Fitzgerald. He was beautiful, like Zelda — they were both petite, with blond hair and light eyes. Years later, in her autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz (1932), she wrote: “He smelled like new goods. Being close to him with her face in the space between his ear and his stiff army collar was like being initiated into the subterranean reserves of a fine fabric store exuding the delicacy of cambrics and linen and luxury bound in bales.” Scott and Zelda spent a lot of time together, but she didn’t want to commit to him; even though he was confident that he was going to be rich and famous, Zelda was hesitant, and her parents were unconvinced. She wrote to him: “Mamma knows that we are going to be married some day — But she keeps leaving stories of young authors, turned out on a dark and stormy night, on my pillow — I wonder if you hadn’t better write to my Daddy — just before I leave — I wish I were detached — sorter without relatives. I’m not exactly scared of ’em, but they could be so unpleasant about what I’m going to do.”

After the publication of Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), Zelda agreed to marry Scott. They became the most famous couple of the Jazz Age. They were the center of attention at parties, where their drunken exploits became the stuff of legend.

Zelda was a writer in her own right, and Scott borrowed from her ideas and sometimes copied writing from her verbatim. When they were dating in Montgomery, Zelda showed Scott her diary, and he used that and her letters in This Side of Paradise. He had modeled the main character, Rosalind, after a woman he had been in love with at Princeton, named Ginevra King; but after meeting Zelda, he reworked the character of Rosalind until she was a combination of both women.

When Zelda was hired to write a review of The Beautiful and Damned for the New York Herald Tribune, she wrote: “It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” She also encouraged readers to buy the book so that Scott could buy her a new dress and a platinum ring.

She said, “I don’t want to live — I want to love first, and live incidentally.”


It’s the birthday of Anglican clergyman and hymn writer John Newton (books by this author), born in London (1725). His father was a ship’s captain, and his pious mother died when he was seven years old, so he accompanied his father to sea. He once tried to desert the Royal Navy, and was publicly flogged and demoted. Later, another ship traded him as cargo, and he became the servant of an African slave dealer. He ended up a captain and carried slaves between Europe, the sugar plantations of the West Indies, and Africa’s slave coast.

In 1748, he had a spiritual conversion on a journey back to England. He almost drowned in a terrible storm, but he prayed to God, and the ship did not sink. After that, he stopped gambling and drinking, and he married a girl he had loved for many years.

Newton was ordained as a minister. He gave up the slave trade entirely, and later in his life he became an outspoken abolitionist. In his best-selling pamphlet Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade (1788), he described the awful conditions of the slave ships he had captained. By this time, Newton was a well-known preacher and writer of hymns, and the public listened to him. In 1805, the 80-year-old Newton went completely blind, but he didn’t stop working. The slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in March of 1807; Newton died that December.

He is best remembered for his hymns, which include “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” and “Amazing Grace,” the poem selection for today.

 


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